BOOTHBAY HARBOR — The Maine Department of Marine Resources has been awarded a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to improve the data used to protect endangered North Atlantic right whales.
The $714,245 grant is funded through the Section 6 Species Recovery Grants to States Program administered by NOAA. The three-year project, which begins in the summer of 2018, will support work that improves and adds data on fishing gear that can inform future whale protection regulations.
With 17 North Atlantic right whale deaths last year, there is growing interest among stakeholders, including regulators and the Maine lobster industry, in improving the data on which future regulations are based.
“Maine has been involved in the development and evolution of whale protection regulations over the past two decades, and this research will ensure that future regulations are based on current, relevant data,” said Erin Summers, project lead and director of the DMR’s Division of Biological Monitoring. “This study is another example of Maine taking a leadership role in the protection of whales.”
“Right whale habitat use has changed in recent years,” said Summers. “Understanding how and where fishing gear is used throughout the Gulf of Maine region will be crucial to the development of regulations that address the relative risk of entanglement in specific areas. If new regulations are required, we want to have the information necessary to maximize the conservation benefit to right whales.”
The project will include a program to solicit volunteer documentation from harvesters from Maine to Connecticut on how vertical lines are rigged and fished. Information will include rope type and diameter, trap configuration, distance from shore, depth and type of surface system.
“Without a better understanding of vertical lines, regulators are more likely to implement sweeping regulations which might not be any more effective at protecting whales,” said Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher. “Good information from industry will increase the likelihood of targeted, effective regulations.” The department will begin conducting industry outreach in the summer of 2018 to promote participation.
The project also will include a study on the breaking strength of vertical lines currently in use, as well as the amount of load put on the vertical lines during different hauling conditions. This analysis will document the strength of rope currently in use, determine what rope strength will ensure that harvesters can fish safely and efficiently, and help determine whether reducing the strength of vertical lines might decrease severe entanglements of right whales. The department will solicit participation from harvesters who are willing to test the hauling loads and breaking strengths of their fishing gear.
The Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team, established 20 years ago to assess and advise federal regulators on whale protection measures, has recommended in recent years improved reporting by harvesters on gear location and configuration, as well as research into rope strength. “These areas of focus will help managers develop informed, effective regulations,” said Summers.
Project participants include the Maine Lobstermen’s Association (MLA), FB Environmental Associates of Portland and Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and the University of Maine School of Marine Science. MLA will work with FB Environmental Associates on project outreach and communications efforts, while the University of Maine School of Marine Science will develop statistical models from the gathered data that regulators can use to quantify current vertical line use and to predict the potential outcomes of proposed regulations.